Saturday, January 10, 2009

Research For Historical Fiction - Part II

Although I have written no historical novels, I have tackled a few historical novellas. In doing so, I learned the difficulty of writing in a historical setting. Time has influenced our world in so many areas—political, manners, language, dress, and technology, and writing about another era can take a tremendous amount of time.

Accuracy is vital as I said in the introduction to researching. One mistake and readers distrust your hard work and attempts to write a realistic book. They question your information throughout the reading so rechecking all information is necessary.

You can find many resources to help you with your research, but remember that research you use is only as good as the researcher who wrote the book. Again double and triple check all information. Typical resources for historical fiction is: encyclopedias, books on the time period by noted historians, websites, real journals, libraries, museums, tours and other novels in that setting. One of my favorite resources is the real journals. I’ve found some on the Internet, but books are published as well that will be immeasurable help. You will not only get facts the typical language of that day.

Peculiarities of Historical Fiction
1. Manners & customs change with the times. Writers Digest has books on this subject, but you can find a variety of resources to help you visualize the manners and customs of the time. Social life, dating, courtship and marriage, protocol in meeting various peerage is available. Methods of celebration and holidays traditions, even holidays we no longer celebrate (or name changes of holidays) is information you can find.

2. Lifestyles change from decade to decade so it’s obvious that it changes radically in eras. Home life and family, the importance of neighbors, church, status in the community makes a novel come to life. Read books set in those time periods to give you a feel for the times. The expectations in family relationships—the wife to the husband, children to parents and siblings and the importance of the extended family varies. How do they spend their leisure? What games were popular during that time? What sports were popular? What employment opportunities were common and what status did it carry? What did women do outside the home?

3. Language/speaking style changes rapidly. It is necessary to learn the language of the day and the location. Even today southerners use different words and phrases than northerns and sometimes the phrase they use means something different than what we use. Study slang words, career lingo, formality of language, use of proper name, proper titles (Ma’am, Madam, Miss, etc.), and the etymology of words (knowing if the word was around at the time of your book) is important.

4. Dress/attire changes every couple of years, so knowing the styles, fabric, proper name for the piece of clothing (that changes too), the fads, appropriateness of attire in various situations. How accessories were used and styles is another issue.

5. Political climate varies from era to era. Who ran the country and what important events were happening in that locality and time period. This might not be important to your novel, but politics can influence how people behave, and certain political climates add problems to everyday life, so you should be aware. For example, FDR’s presidency brought in the WPA, social security, labor unions, relief support, and farm bills.

6. Particular events in history have made a tremendous impact on people and their mind set. It has changed the lives of many. Examples are the gold rush, slavery, temperance movement, the depression, prohibition, the stock market crash, and 9/11. All of these political problems affected the lives of the people.

7. War details are important if this is part of your plot. Books written in certain eras might not be about a war, but again the war affects the way the people think, behave, and live.

8. Modes of transportation change radically. Today we fly more than take a train, but trains are still a mode of getting around. Buses were popular when I was growing up. Buses no longer stop every fifteen minutes in many smaller towns as they did. Taxis are popular in metropolises but not in other locations. Different countries use different modes of getting around. London uses the Tube or subway. Paris calls it the Metro. Detroit has the People Mover. Germany and mountainous areas use Seilbahn, also called funicular or cable railway.

9. Houses, household furnishings, and implements change in style. The toaster has gone through a multitude of models as does the range/stove. The icehouse became an icebox to a refrigerator and even that has changed to dispense water and ice from the door.

10. Appropriate careers for the day is something to consider. A blacksmith is not a common career anymore. As our industries and technologies change so does the workforce. Keypunch is out as computers changed. Make sure you select careers appropriate to the location and time period of your novel.

I have only scraped the surface of the need to do thorough research when writing a historical novel. This will give you an idea of some of the areas that must be researched before you begin writing your novel. As you write, new needs will arise but you’ll have a head start by doing much of your research early.


Kathleen L. said...

Great series, Gail. I wanted to comment on your point about important events. This is so true.

Folks who lived in the sixties remember where they were and what they were doing when they learned that JFK was shot. Some might even remember what they were wearing and who they were with.

These events stick in our memory like gunk on an oven floor, because they are baked there with emotion. Here's a perfect example: whether we voted for him or not, all of us will be feeling an emotion when Mr. Obama is inaugurated next week!

Thanks for the great post.

Gail Gaymer Martin said...

Hi Kath - Yes, you're right. We are influenced by the times and that makes our novels more real when woven into our novels.

Wishing you great writing.